Artist Spotlight: Interview with Sim Yan Ying and Adib Kosnan (and WIN tickets to Without Reason!)
Ever been in an interracial relationship, or have friends who’ve been in one? If you have, then you’ll probably be familiar with the dilemma the protagonists of Without Reason are struggling with. A classic boy-meets-girl love story between a Malay boy and a Chinese girl, Without Reason pits the young couple against all odds, from religious differences to doubt from friends and family, and will take audiences on an extraordinary quest for love and identity.
We managed to get some time with the brilliant minds behind Without Reason: playwright Sim Yan Ying and director Adib Kosnan, and talked to them about their creative process and their own experiences with prejudice in Singapore. Check out the full interview below!
Sim Yan Ying
What inspired you to write Without Reason, and how much of the script was based off personal experience?
Yan Ying: The secondary school and junior college that I went to were both Special Assistance Plan (SAP) schools, where people are predominantly Chinese (because SAP schools only offer Mandarin as the mother tongue language). I graduated having no friends of other races besides the acquaintances I made in primary school, and I wasn’t aware of how problematic that was, until I met people of various ethnicities and socioeconomic backgrounds in the theatre industry. I realized then how much I didn’t know about people of other ethnicities even though they live in such close proximity to me. I don’t blame my ignorance entirely on the fact that I went to SAP schools, but the environment I was in was certainly a contributing factor.
So it was embarrassing and I got a really rude shock. At the same time, I became very aware of and got increasingly uncomfortable by the racist jokes and comments that I heard around me, made by people who are close to me. I never gave much thought to them and used to even laugh along without being aware of their wider implications.
Hence, I wrote Without Reason as a way for me to explore this problem, to get to know another race better, and to understand my racial privilege. I was also inspired by the experience of a close friend who was struggling with an interracial relationship, how the problems she faced were so similar—and yet so different at the same time—to what I experienced when I was in a (non-interracial) relationship.
In your theatre experience thus far, we’ve mostly seen you onstage in plays like The Spirits Play and The House of Bernarda Alba. Do you see yourself continuing to focus on your writing or going back to acting? How do you think Singapore can continue to nurture and train budding thespians?
Yan Ying: I find it hard to label myself as an actor, writer, or anything else per se; rather, I see myself more as a theatre and performance artist. I direct, act, write, devise, lighting design, sound design, and am increasingly delving into the world of performance art. While I do feel a pressure to specialize in something, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to fit myself neatly into a category, for I derive fulfilment from doing all of those things as they allow me to creatively express in different ways. I certainly hope to excel in all these areas, but my greater desire is to integrate them and eventually stage productions that are similar to those of Richard Foreman’s and María Irene Fornés’s, in terms of cohesion and singularity of vision.
I feel that the existing theatre programmes for youths in Singapore are very beneficial in terms of nurturing and training budding thespians – the Buds Youth Theatre (BYT) programme, Wild Rice’s young & W!LD, Singapore Repertory Theatre’s Young Co, among others. I was in the BYT programme from 2014 to 2015, which exposed me to a variety of theatrical styles and techniques. I learnt a lot from the workshops with guest artists, and I’m most grateful for the fact that it provided me with the platform to write my first full-length play, Without Reason, which has been through multiple rewrites since then and has indeed come a long way.
However, the existing programmes are largely catered towards performance training and playwriting mentorship, and I hope that more of them will target aspiring directors as well as designers. In fact, I’d love to have more programmes that are more focused on experimentation and exploration, devising and collaboration, programmes that explore other possibilities of theatre and new artistic styles, programmes that go beyond the conventional “taking a play from page to stage” process. Keeping these programmes affordable will be important as well, to ensure that we do not exclude any aspiring artists simply because of their socioeconomic background.
This year’s Peer Pleasure theme is ‘The Other’. How does this theme resonate with you own life and what do you hope viewers will walk away with after watching Without Reason?
Yan Ying: As an international student and a minority in the United States, ‘The Other’ is pretty much my identity – which is not always a bad thing. Sure, I don’t understand a lot of the American cultural references that my friends make, I occasionally have to deal with racial slights, and it’s annoying having to constantly repeat and explain my name to people in the U.S., who tend to assume that ‘Sim Yan Ying’ takes on the conventional English first name/ middle name/ last name structure. But in general I’m fortunate to be living in New York City, a very diverse place, with people who are generally quite accepting (can’t say the same for many of the other places in the U.S.).
Most of the time I thrive on being ‘The Other’ here. I relish in breaking racial and gender stereotypes in my art and in my life, and in an ironic twist I sometimes even take pride in self-exoticism. I like surprising people. In terms of creating works in the theatre, I am able to draw from experiences that differ greatly from most other artists, and hence provide fresh insights and perspectives. Being an artist who is an ‘Other’ in a place like NYC feels to me more an asset than a curse – if I leverage on it, it can really help me to stand out in a way that’s advantageous, as I’m able to create works that are more interesting and unique.
With regards to what I hope viewers will walk away with after watching Without Reason – firstly, it would be the acknowledgement that racial tensions are still present in Singapore, even as we tout ourselves as a racially harmonious society. Racism doesn’t always manifest in blatant or violent ways; much of it can be subtle but nonetheless insidious. I also hope for more Chinese people to understand and be aware of our Chinese privilege. And to admit to ourselves that perhaps we do have racist thoughts to varying degrees – now what do we do about these?
Most of all, I hope for the audience to walk away with more questions and less answers. The conversation around race is more complex than we think, and many other factors go into it, for instance socioeconomic background, education, etc.
What experiences do you have of being in an interracial relationship and what do you think are the biggest challenges an interracial couple faces?
Adib: Throughout my adolescent years, there have been a couple of instances where I’ve gone out with someone not from my racial group. Things never developed into a full-fledged relationship but what struck me was even at those initial stages of getting to know each other, the difference always came up either deliberately or in some less obvious ways.
The biggest challenge for an interracial couple in my opinion is the fact that they’ll always be defined by or judged even in our supposedly multicultural society. There is always a sense of compromise or giving up something that would otherwise be an integral part of your life, like beliefs or cultural practices, just so that you can be with someone you love. Of course, there are couples that choose to rebel against these ideas and create a new definition for themselves but even then, there is never a clear cut acceptance by the people around them that they can count on. That sucks because ultimately you love whom you love and you should be able to love freely.
Within the Peer Pleasure festival, you’re considered one of the ‘veteran’ thespians here. What’s the best advice you have for young theatremakers in Singapore?
Adib: Don’t define yourself as one thing or another before you give each role a fair shot. There are many ways you can create theatre and there are many avenues for you to learn and develop. Don’t discount any of them. Use them to find out more about yourself as a practitioner.
This year’s Peer Pleasure theme is ‘The Other’. How does this theme resonate with your own life and what do you hope viewers will walk away with after watching Without Reason?
Adib: As a Malay freelance theatre practitioner, I often feel like ‘the other’ with regards to every variable in that label. As a minority in Singapore there are certain situations I will always find alienating, the same thing occurs when I speak to people who have stable 9 to 5 jobs who cannot comprehend why anyone would freelance especially in theatre. This theme feels familiar to me because of these reasons.
At the end of the day though, I feel that everyone essentially wants the same things, love, acceptance, validation (not necessarily in this order). This is what I would like viewers to walk away with from watching the play.
If you enjoyed what you just read, then surely you’d be interested to catch Without Reason when it plays at the Esplanade Theatre Studio from 2nd to 4th August as part of the M1 Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival. We’ve got a special giveaway just for readers. All you have to do is:
1. Like the M1 Peer Pleasure Festival Page on Facebook
2. Repost this article on Facebook with the hashtag #m1peerpleasure
3. Make sure it’s a public post!
The organizers of the Peer Pleasure Youth Theatre Festival ArtsWok Collaborative will select and get in touch with the lucky winner! Even if you don’t win, you can still get tickets to catch Without Reason here,